History of Heroin and Opium Use and Abuse
3400 B.C. The opium poppy is cultivated in lower Mesopotamia. The Sumerians refer to it as Hul Gil, the ‘joy plant.’ The Sumerians would soon pass along the plant and its euphoric effects to the Assyrians. The art of poppy-culling would continue from the Assyrians to the Babylonians who in turn would pass their knowledge onto the Egyptians.
c.1300 B.C. In the capital city of Thebes, Egyptians begin cultivation of opium thebaicum, grown in their famous poppy fields. The opium trade flourishes during the reign of Thutmose IV, Akhenaton and King Tutankhamen. The trade route included the Phoenicians and Minoans who move the profitable item across the Mediterranean Sea into Greece, Carthage, and Europe.
c.1100 B.C. On the island of Cyprus, the “Peoples of the Sea” craft surgical-quality culling knives to harvest opium, which they would cultivate, trade and smoke before the fall of Troy.
c. 460 B.C. Hippocrates, “the father of medicine”, dismisses the magical attributes of opium but acknowledges its usefulness as a narcotic and styptic in treating internal diseases, diseases of women and epidemics.
330 B.C. Alexander the Great introduces opium to the people of Persia and India.
300 B.C. Opium used by Arabs, Greeks, and Romans as a sedative and soporific.
A.D. 400 Opium thebaicum, from the Egyptian fields at Thebes, is first introduced to China by Arab traders.
1300’s Opium disappears for two hundred years from European historical record. Opium had become a taboo subject for those in circles of learning during the Holy Inquisition. In the eyes of the Inquisition, anything from the East was linked to the Devil.
1500 The Portuguese, while trading along the East China Sea, initiate the smoking of opium. The effects were instantaneous as they discovered but it was a practice the Chinese considered barbaric and subversive.
1527 During the height of the Reformation, opium is reintroduced into European medical literature by Paracelsus as laudanum. These black pills or “Stones of Immortality” were made of opium thebaicum, citrus juice and quintessence of gold and prescribed as painkillers.
1600’s Residents of Persia and India begin eating and drinking opium mixtures for recreational use.Portuguese merchants carrying cargoes of Indian opium through Macao direct its trade flow into China.
1606 Ships chartered by Elizabeth I are instructed to purchase the finest Indian opium and transport it back to England.
1680 English apothecary, Thomas Sydenham, introduces Sydenham’s Laudanum, a compound of opium, sherry wine and herbs. His pills along with others of the time become popular remedies for numerous ailments.
1689 Use of tobacco-opium mixtures (madak) begins in the East Indies (probably Java) spreads to Formosa, Fukien and the South China coast.
Engelberg Kaempfer inspects primitive dens where the mixture is dispensed.
1700 The Dutch export shipments of Indian opium to China and the islands of Southeast Asia; the Dutch introduce the practice of smoking opium in a tobacco pipe to the Chinese.
Use of hashish, alcohol, and opium spreads among the population of occupied Constantinople.
1729 Chinese emperor, Yung Cheng, issues an edict prohibiting the smoking of opium and its domestic sale, except under license for use as medicine.
1750 The British East India Company assumes control of Bengal and Bihar, opium-growing districts of India. British shipping dominates the opium trade out of Calcutta to China.
1753 Linnaeus, the father of botany, first classifies the poppy, Papaver somniferum– ‘sleep-inducing’, in his book Genera Plantarum.
1767 Opium from Bengal continues to enter China despite the edict of 1729 prohibiting smoking. The British East India Company’s import of opium to China increases in frequency from 200 chests annually in 1729 to a staggering two thousand chests of opium per year. However, much is for medicinal use. Tariffs are collected on the opium.
1772 The East India company establishes a limited monopoly over Bengal opium; the company has general control but the operation is in the hands of contractors, who advance company funds to the farmers, purchase the opium produced, and sell it to the company which then auctions it off to merchants in Calcutta. British companies are the principal shippers.
1773–1786 Warren Hastings, the first governor general of India, recognizes that opium is harmful and at first opposes increasing production; later he encourages the control of opium by the company hoping that by monopolizing and limiting the supply he will discourage its consumption. This limited monopoly lasts throughout his administration and beyond, but when the Chinese market is discovered, the monopoly shifts from controlling to expanding cultivation.
1779 First mention of actual trading in opium at Canton.
1780 British traders establish an opium depot at Macao. Another imperial edict prohibits consumption of opium and reiterates prohibition of its sale.
1787 Trade in opium is still less important than trade in commodities; directors of the East India Company, recognizing China’s objections to the importation of opium, make offers to prohibit the export of Indian opium to China. However, company representatives in Canton declare that the Chinese are never sincere in their declared intentions of suppressing illicit traffic, as long as the officials issue prohibitory edicts with one hand and extend the other to receive bribes from the illegal trade.
1793 The British East India Company establishes a total monopoly on the opium trade. All poppy growers in India were forbidden to sell opium to competitor trading companies.
1796 Alarmed by increasing use, the emperor of China issues an edict forbidding importation of opium, as well as export of Chinese silver that is being used as a medium of exchange. Now even legitimate trade is limited to barter. Nonetheless, illegal purchase of opium with silver continues.
1799 The 1796 edict increases traffic through Macao and other areas beyond government control enabling unprecedented growth. The British declare only their legitimate cargo, leave opium on board to be picked up by Chinese merchants who smuggle it ashore in small, fast boats.
China’s emperor, Kia King, bans opium completely, making trade and poppy cultivation illegal.
A strong edict by authorities at Canton, supporting the emperor’s decree of 1796, forbids opium trade at that port. A concurrent drive against native poppy growing is initiated. Opium becomes an illicit commodity.
1800’s Patent medicines and opium preparations such as Dover’s Powder were readily available without restrictions. Indeed, Laudanum (opium mixed with alcohol) was cheaper than beer or wine and readily within the means of the lowest-paid worker. As a result, throughout the first half of the 19th century, the incidence of opium dependence appears to have increased steadily in England, Europe and the United States. Working-class medicinal use of opium-bearing nostrums as sedatives for children was especially prominent in England. However, despite some well-known cases among 19th century English literary and creative personalities (Thomas de Quincey, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, and Dickens) recreational use was limited, and there is no evidence that use was so excessive as to be a medical or social concern.
1800 The British Levant Company purchases nearly half of all of the opium coming out of Smyrna, Turkey strictly for importation to Europe and the United States.
Opium becomes identified with official corruption, criminals and anti-government secret societies. An edict prohibits domestic cultivation and repeats the prohibition against importing opium. China develops an anti-opium policy, at least on paper. Edicts continue to be issued reiterating prohibitions against importation, sale, and consumption of opium.
1800—1820 Domestic opium cultivation is encouraged by increased opium use, along with rising prices and problems with adulteration. It declines after the 1820s, but there does not appear to have been any call for controls.
1803 Friedrich Sertuerner of Paderborn, Germany discovers the active ingredient of opium by dissolving it in acid then neutralizing it with ammonia. The result: alkaloids- Principium somniferum or morphine. This may have been the first plant alkaloid ever isolated and set off a firestorm of research into plant alkaloids. Within half a century, dozens of alkaloids, such as atropine, caffeine, cocaine, and quinine, had been isolated from other plants and were being used in precisely measured dosages for the first time.
Physicians believe that opium had finally been perfected and tamed. Morphine is lauded as “God’s own medicine” for its reliability, long-lasting effects and safety.
1804 Opium trading resumes at the port of Canton. Though the 1796 edict is still in force, it has little effect and no immediate practical change in policy ensues.
1805 A smuggler from Boston, Massachusetts, Charles Cabot, attempts to purchase opium from the British, then smuggle it into China under the auspices of British smugglers.
1812 American John Cushing, under the employ of his uncles’ business, James and Thomas H. Perkins Company of Boston, acquires his wealth from smuggling Turkish opium to Canton.
1816 John Jacob Astor of New York City joins the opium smuggling trade. His American Fur Company purchases ten tons of Turkish opium then ships the contraband item to Canton on the Macedonian. Astor would later leave the China opium trade and sell solely to England.
1819 Writer John Keats and other English literary personalities experiment with opium intended for strict recreational use- simply for the high and taken at extended, non-addictive intervals.
1821 Thomas De Quincey publishes his autobiographical account of opium addiction, ‘Confessions of an English Opium-eater.’
1827 E. Merck & Company of Darmstadt, Germany, begins commercial manufacturing of morphine.
1830 The British dependence on opium for medicinal and recreational use reaches an all time high as 22,000 pounds of opium is imported from Turkey and India.
Jardine-Matheson & Company of London inherit India and its opium from the British East India Company once the mandate to rule and dictate the trade policies of British India are no longer in effect.
1832 Codeine is extracted from opium.
1837 Elizabeth Barrett Browning falls under the spell of morphine. This, however, does not impede her ability to write “poetical paragraphs.”
1839 Opium and its preparations are responsible for more premature deaths than any other chemical agent. Opiates account for 186 of 543 poisonings, including no fewer than 72 among children.
Mar 18, 1839 Lin Tse-Hsu, imperial Chinese commissioner in charge of suppressing the opium traffic, orders all foreign traders to surrender their opium. In response, the British send expeditionary warships to the coast of China, beginning The First Opium War.
1840 New Englanders bring 24,000 pounds of opium into the United States. This catches the attention of U.S. Customs which promptly puts a duty fee on the import.
1841 The Chinese are defeated by the British in the First Opium War. Along with paying a large indemnity, Hong Kong is ceded to the British.
1843 Dr. Alexander Wood of Edinburgh discovers a new technique of administering morphine, injection with a syringe. He finds the effects of morphine on his patients instantaneous and three times more potent.
1852 The British arrive in lower Burma, importing large quantities of opium from India and selling it through a government-controlled opium monopoly.
1853 The hypodermic needle was invented.
1856 The British and French renew their hostilities against China in the Second Opium War. In the aftermath of the struggle, China is forced to pay another indemnity. The importation of opium is legalized.
Opium production increases along the highlands of Southeast Asia.
1874 English researcher, C.R. Wright first synthesizes heroin, or diacetylmorphine, by boiling morphine over a stove.
In San Francisco, smoking opium in the city limits is banned and is confined to neighboring Chinatowns and their opium dens.
1878 Britain passes the Opium Act with hopes of reducing opium consumption. Under the new regulation, the selling of opium is restricted to registered Chinese opium smokers and Indian opium eaters while the Burmese are strictly prohibited from smoking opium. 1886 The British acquire Burma’s northeast region, the Shan state. Production and smuggling of opium along the lower region of Burma thrives despite British efforts to maintain a strict monopoly on the opium trade.
1890 U.S. Congress, in its earliest law-enforcement legislation on narcotics, imposes a tax on opium and morphine.
Tabloids owned by William Randolph Hearst publish stories of white women being seduced by Chinese men and their opium to invoke fear of the ‘Yellow Peril’, disguised as an “anti-drug” campaign.
1895 Heinrich Dreser working for The Bayer Company of Elberfeld, Germany, finds that diluting morphine with acetyls produces a drug without the common morphine side effects. Bayer begins production of diacetylmorphine and coins the name “heroin.”
1898 The Bayer Company introduces heroin as a substitute for morphine.
Early 1900’s The philanthropic Saint James Society in the U.S. mounts a campaign to supply free samples of heroin through the mail to morphine addicts who are trying give up their habits.
Efforts by the British and French to control opium production in Southeast Asia are successful. Nevertheless, this Southeast region, referred to as the ‘Golden Triangle’, eventually becomes a major player in the profitable opium trade during the 1940’s.
1902 In various medical journals, physicians discuss the side effects of using heroin as a morphine step-down cure. Several physicians would argue that their patients suffered from heroin withdrawal symptoms equal to morphine addiction.
1903 Heroin addiction rises to alarming rates.
1905 First mention of actual trading in opium at Canton.
1906 China and England finally enact a treaty restricting the Sino-Indian opium trade.
Several physicians experiment with treatments for heroin addiction. Dr. Alexander Lambert and Charles B. Towns tout their popular cure as the most “advanced, effective and compassionate cure” for heroin addiction. The cure consisted of a 7-day regimen, which included a five-day purge of heroin from the addict’s system with doses of belladonna delirium.
U.S. Congress passes the Pure Food and Drug Act requiring contents labeling on patent medicines by pharmaceutical companies. As a result, the availability of opiates and opiate consumers significantly declines.
1909 The first federal drug prohibition passes in the U.S. outlawing the importation of opium. It was passed in preparation for the Shanghai Conference, at which the US presses for legislation aimed at suppressing the sale of opium to China.
Feb 1, 1909 The International Opium Commission convenes in Shanghai. Heading the U.S. delegation are Dr. Hamilton Wright and Episcopal Bishop Henry Brent. Both would try to convince the international delegation of the immoral and evil effects of opium.
1910 After 150 years of failed attempts to rid the country of opium, the Chinese are finally successful in convincing the British to dismantle the India-China opium trade.
Dec 17, 1914 The passage of Harrison Narcotics Act which aims to curb drug (especially cocaine but also heroin) abuse and addiction. It requires doctors, pharmacists and others who prescribed narcotics to register and pay a tax.
1922 Narcotic Import and Export Act - restricted the importation of crude opium except for medical use.
1923 The U.S. Treasury Department’s Narcotics Division (the first federal drug agency) bans all legal narcotics sales. With the prohibition of legal venues to purchase heroin, addicts are forced to buy from illegal street dealers.
1924 Heroin Act - made manufacture and possession of heroin illegal.
1925 In the wake of the first federal ban on opium, a thriving black market opens up in New York’s Chinatown.
1930’s The majority of illegal heroin smuggled into the U.S. comes from China and is refined in Shanghai and Tietsin.
Federal Bureau of Narcotics is created.
Early 1940’s During World War II, opium trade routes are blocked and the flow of opium from India and Persia is cut off. Fearful of losing their opium monopoly, the French encourage Hmong farmers to expand their opium production.
1945–1947 Burma gains its independence from Britain at the end of World War II. Opium cultivation and trade flourishes in the Shan states.
1948–1972 Corsican gangsters dominate the U.S. heroin market through their connection with Mafia drug distributors. After refining the raw Turkish opium in Marseille laboratories, the heroin is made easily available for purchase by junkies on New York City streets.
1950’s U.S. efforts to contain the spread of Communism in Asia involves forging alliances with tribes and warlords inhabiting the areas of the Golden Triangle, (an expanse covering Laos, Thailand and Burma), thus providing accessibility and protection along the southeast border of China. In order to maintain their relationship with the warlords while continuing to fund the struggle against communism, the U.S. and France supply the drug warlords and their armies with ammunition, arms and air transport for the production and sale of opium. The result: an explosion in the availability and illegal flow of heroin into the United States and into the hands of drug dealers and addicts.
1962 Burma outlaws opium.
1965–1970 U.S. involvement in Vietnam is blamed for the surge in illegal heroin being smuggled into the States. To aid U.S. allies, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sets up a charter airline, Air America, to transport raw opium from Burma and Laos. As well, some of the opium would be transported to Marseille by Corsican gangsters to be refined into heroin and shipped to the U.S via the French connection. The number of heroin addicts in the U.S. reaches an estimated 750,000.
1970 Controlled Substances Act was passed - divided drugs into categories, set regulations and penalties for narcotics.
Legendary singer, Janis Joplin, is found dead at Hollywood’s Landmark Hotel, a victim of an “accidental heroin overdose.”
1972 Heroin exportation from Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle, controlled by Shan warlord, Khun Sa, becomes a major source for raw opium in the profitable drug trade.
July 1, 1973 President Nixon creates the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) under the Justice Dept. to consolidate virtually all federal powers of drug enforcement in a single agency.
Mid-1970’s Saigon falls. The heroin epidemic subsides. The search for a new source of raw opium yields Mexico’s Sierra Madre. “Mexican Mud” would temporarily replace “China White” heroin until 1978.
1978 The U.S. and Mexican governments find a means to eliminate the source of raw opium - by spraying poppy fields with Agent Orange. The eradication plan is termed a success as the amount of “Mexican Mud” in the U.S. drug market declines. In response to the decrease in availability of “Mexican Mud”, another source of heroin is found in the Golden Crescent area - Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, creating a dramatic upsurge in the production and trade of illegal heroin.
1982 Comedian John Belushi of Animal House fame, dies of a heroin-cocaine- “speedball” overdose.
Sept 1984 U.S. State Department officials conclude, after more than a decade of crop substitution programs for Third World growers of marijuana, coca or opium poppies, that the tactic cannot work without eradication of the plants and criminal enforcement. Poor results are reported from eradication programs in Burma, Pakistan, Mexico and Peru.
1988 Opium production in Burma increases under the rule of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the Burmese junta regime.
The single largest heroin seizure is made in Bangkok. The U.S. suspects that the 2,400-pound shipment of heroin, en route to New York City, originated from the Golden Triangle region, controlled by drug warlord, Khun Sa.
1990 A U.S. Court indicts Khun Sa, leader of the Shan United Army and reputed drug warlord, on heroin trafficking charges. The U.S. Attorney General’s office charges Khun Sa with importing 3,500 pounds of heroin into New York City over the course of eighteen months, as well as holding him responsible for the source of the heroin seized in Bangkok.
1992 Colombia’s drug lords are said to be introducing a high-grade form of heroin into the United States.
1993 The Thai army with support from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) launches its operation to destroy thousands of acres of opium poppies from the fields of the Golden Triangle region.
Oct 31, 1993 Heroin takes another well-known victim. Twenty-three-year-old actor River Phoenix dies of a heroin-cocaine overdose, the same “speedball” combination that killed comedian John Belushi.
Jan 1994 Efforts to eradicate opium at its source remains unsuccessful. The Clinton Administration orders a shift in policy away from the anti-drug campaigns of previous administrations. Instead the focus includes “institution building” with the hope that by “strengthening democratic governments abroad, [it] will foster law-abiding behavior and promote legitimate economic opportunity.”
April 1994 Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the Seattle-based alternative rock band, Nirvana, dies of heroin-related suicide.
1995 The Golden Triangle region of Southeast Asia is now the leader in opium production, yielding 2,500 tons annually. According to U.S. drug experts, there are new drug trafficking routes from Burma through Laos, to southern China, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Jan 1996 Khun Sa, one of Shan state’s most powerful drug warlords, “surrenders” to SLORC. The U.S. is suspicious and fears that this agreement between the ruling junta regime and Khun Sa includes a deal allowing “the opium king” to retain control of his opium trade but in exchange end his 30-year-old revolutionary war against the government.
Nov 1996 International drug trafficking organizations, including China, Nigeria, Colombia and Mexico are said to be “aggressively marketing heroin in the United States and Europe.”
Contributing sources: PBS’s Frontline and erowid.org
- Booth, Martin. Opium: A History. London: Simon & Schuster, Ltd., 1996.
- Latimer, Dean, and Jeff Goldberg with an Introduction by William Burroughs. Flowers in the Blood: The Story of Opium. New York: Franklin Watts, 1981
- McCoy, Alfred W. The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade. New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 1991.
- Musto, David F. The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.